Doll restoration Resident brings business to Elkader

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Doll restorer Cathryn Chancellor is pictured with one of her favorites, a sassy Gibson Girl-style doll.

These two projects are at various stages of restoration. Cathryn, who recently relocated to Elkader, works on everything from antiques to American Girl Dolls.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

There are several restoration projects underway at the stately Victorian house at 102 High Street, Elkader. There’s work on the house itself to return it to its 1913 splendor and then there’s work on the dozens of dolls entrusted to the care one of the property’s new owners, Cathryn Chancellor.

Cathryn and her husband, Clark, recently relocated to Northeast Iowa from Texas. Though Clark is retired, Cathryn brought her home-based business with her.

“I never imagined myself here mostly because I didn’t know Elkader, Iowa, existed,” said Cathryn, who was born in Georgia and mostly raised in Florida. “Even my husband had never heard of it and he spent his first 18 years in Des Moines!”

The couple knew they wanted to live in a small town and they wanted to purchase an older home. Clark was committed to returning to Iowa after living so many years in the extreme heat of the southern U.S.

“We looked at another house here, and even though that didn’t work out for us we fell in love with the town so we kept searching.” Cathryn said.

Their new home is not only a showcase of their restoration talents it’s also a showcase for Cathryn’s doll repair skills. Dolls in need of repair and pieces from Cathryn’s personal collection are tastefully displayed on the main living level. Cathryn’s shop is in the attic.

A love of dolls is something Cathryn inherited from her mother. An only child, Cathryn was always surrounded by dolls.

“My mom was an artist who started repairing dolls when I was a teen,” Cathryn explained. “She didn’t like to sew so I always did that. I still make lots of doll clothes, especially for people who want something vintage or appropriate for the time the doll was made.”

While living in Houston, Cathryn competed for business with several long-established doll restorers. When one of them became ill, Cathryn purchased that woman’s business.

Much of Cathryn’s work is family keepsakes. In fact, as she was being interviewed for this article, she received a visit from an Elkader woman who wanted to restore a doll from her childhood. But she also deals with antique pieces. Her oldest repair challenge is a wax doll from the 1850s or 1860s. Many of the dolls she works on have unique features like papier-mache heads and bamboo teeth. The faces of older dolls are intricately painted. Many of her projects are works of art as much as they are playthings. 

“I repair everything from antiques to American Girl,” she said. “The older dolls require research but other than that, a lot of this business is learn as you go.

Dolls come to Cathryn variously damaged. She’s currently working on one that was almost completely destroyed by rodents during storage. Another arrived literally in pieces, smashed by curious boys who discovered it hidden in a closet.

“The first thing I do is look the doll over to figure out what I can do and what it might cost,” Cathryn said. “Then I contact the owner and go from there. The amount of time it takes to do a restoration varies. It can be as long as a year.”

Cathryn admits that she sometimes has difficulty letting go of a doll that she’s spent a great deal of time on. As far as her own collection goes, she’s flexible about what she ultimately keeps and what she’s willing to sell.

“Some won’t leave me until I’m dead,” she admits.

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